Fuel Cells And Its Role In India’s Future Energy And Mobility Space

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Opinion piece by Abhilash Savidhan- Automotive Professional, Clean Energy and Mobility Enthusiast

India’s courtship with Electric Vehicles even though was started in 2013 with the National Electric Mobility Mission plan, it is evident that we have not achieved the numbers targeted. Let’s face it, India has a long way to go compared to what China Europe US or even the Middle East has done. Sure, inroads have been made into the EV space, particularly in the 2 wheeler and 3 wheeler segments. In the last fiscal, 1,56,000 electric vehicles were sold with 1,52,000 being two wheelers. Many startups have come up with innovative technology and business solutions. But, as a country, India has her own challenges and priorities. Aspirations of the vehicle owner/user are unique to India.

Availability of quality electricity 24x7x365, challenges of setting infrastructure, availability of budget for providing supply and demand side incentives, balancing the budget between other important sectors like health, defence, agriculture and education at the same time are just a few challenges we are facing. India is committed to arresting pollution and climate change and at the same time it is imperative that we must secure our fuel and energy supply. The shift to clean electric vehicles is the means to achieving that end. This transition has to be done in a manner which does not disrupt the current auto industry and the associated ecosystem by taking it off the rails and heading to a crash. That is precisely the reason we have become more realistic by moving  “all electric by 2030” to “no need for any timeline for automakers to switch to electric mobility” as said by Union Minister Shri Nitin Gadkari.

The foremost reason for the slow take off of electrification is the cost of the vehicle, wth battery being the highest cost item in the vehicle. Battery replacement cost is another factor which is holding back potential users/buys. Of course battery costs are decreasing drastically and are expected to touch $100/kWh by 2023, I am of the opinion that after some time prices will start to rise again, due to increase in demand of nickel, cobalt, lithium, and other raw materials used in batteries. Lithium prices within China, as assessed by Benchmark Mineral Intelligence, are beginning to rise for the first time in three years. 

Another challenge is the availability of clean, reliable and quality supply of electricity. The share of coal in the generation of electricity still hovers around 70%. Sure, we have started moving to renewables and the share of renewables has been increasing. Still, there is still a long way to go from its share of around 20% today. To add to that, India’s transmission and distribution losses are around 20% (some studies say it is much higher than that) due to technical inefficiencies and thefts. 

So, the solution is small or no batteries, and clean power with no transmission losses. How do we do that? Green hydrogen, microgrids, clean power generation, renewables.

Green hydrogen is hydrogen produced using renewable energy by electrolysing water. A lot of activity is happening in this area and green hydrogen production costs have fallen by 40% since 2015 and are expected to fall by a further 40% through 2025. And green hydrogen can reduce carbon footprint in steel and fertilizer production, power generation, and long-range shipping in addition to the mobility sector. With scaling and technology improvements, hydrogen prices are expected to fall by upto 60% in the next decade as per studies by the Hydrogen Council.

How can India Benefit from Green Hydrogen Power?

  • Housing Societies can have off grid power generation based on green hydrogen.
  • Villages and Panchayats can have their own power generation facility that does not depend on rains or thermal power stations.
  • Zero Transmission losses. Power is produced where it is generated.
  • Hydrogen Filling stations where it is generated. No need of transmission lines and transformers and allied infrastructure as it is required in case of EV fast charging stations or CNG/LNG/LPG filling stations.

India has some 400,000 mobile towers and almost 70% of them face power shortage. Telecom companies use diesel generators, batteries and power management systems to power the towers and this is a huge expense to the operators that eats into their profitability. Diesel prices now being deregulated, diesel prices are not what it used to be. Hydrogen Fuel cell generators are the answer to these. Large batteries are no longer needed.

No need for High Capacity and expensive batteries in Fuel Cell Vehicles as the primary source of power is the fuel cell itself. The low capacity batteries and/or the power capacitors are mostly for the extra punch required during transient conditions. And the batteries last much longer than EV’s as they are not subjected to the same charging – discharging cycles as in a battery electric vehicle. This translates into lesser usage of nickel, cobalt and lithium. Hydrogen Economy and Fuel Cell Vehicles, once cost parity is achieved, makes a lot of sense for India. Of course, it won’t happen overnight. But, slowly, the pieces are falling into place. Reducing electrolyser costs, increasing usage of renewable energy, many companies and startups working on Fuel Cell Stacks, ISRO offering its fuel cell technology in the open; the journey has begun. Manufacturing of composite tanks which can be used for hydrogen storage is about to begin in India. With locally made stack and tanks, for a given range, FCV’s weigh way lower than battery electric vehicles and hence there can be higher payloads and longer ranges.

It is important that India take the right steps in terms of local R&D and investments in this sector. The government too needs to make the right noises and give the right push so that we reach the ultimate goal, an energy secure country with a carbon neutral economy and leaders in clean energy technology.

By Abhilash Savidhan- Automotive Professional, Clean Energy and Mobility Enthusiast

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